In New Delhi, you can see the air. Smog and particulates hang suspended, clouding the view and rendering the city unlivable for its residents. The city has repeatedly failed air quality tests, with measurements increasing alarmingly from 1990 to 2016 when Delhi scored a 999 on the Air Quality Index, which actually only issues high hazard ratings at a maximum of 500. The city is literally off the charts.
What this means in human terms is an increase in the number of air pollution related deaths. It is estimated 8 people a day die in New Delhi from pollution. The rich and those with access can mitigate the ill effects of air pollution, or can leave. The poor have no recourse of their own.
“The challenges are huge,” said Dr. Sunita Narain, director general of India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). First people had to be convinced that motorized transportation was neither the only nor even the best option. The second and biggest challenge was “changing minds.” And the way to do that, Dr. Narain said, was by “seeing things on the ground in order to understand how things can be done differently.”
The late Dr. Anil Agarwal founded the CSE in 1980. A believer in science as an agent of social change, his vision was to bring together media and academia as a means of identifying the problems that affected the poor and finding solutions. As he said, academia has the rigor and skills of analysis, while journalism and media have timeliness and communications ability. For example, while an academic report on the Bhopal tragedy may have been well researched and documented, if released five years after the incident, very few beyond academia really have an interest to read it anymore. But while journalists would write about it quickly and in a timely fashion, they would likely do so hastily and without understanding the real situation or the surrounding context. According to Agarwal, the job of CSE was to marry the skills of both and communicate rigorous research widely and simply. This, he believed, was the way to spur transformation in policy.
Today the CSE has built upon his initial vision to become a much-expanded research and advocacy organization that advocates for sustainable development solutions, partly by raising public awareness and partly through lobbying the government via India’s democratic institutions. The model of the organization is to invest in deep and comprehensive knowledge sharing through a multi-media advocacy approach around the effects of environmental degradation and climate change, particularly on the poor.
In addition to tackling the toxic air quality of India’s capital city, the CSE is working on sustainable agriculture and food provision. They are looking at how food can be diversified, and what the best farming practices are that simultaneously safeguard the environment while maximizing the farmer’s earnings.
With its huge population, sprawling land mass and high level of poverty, India’s problems are acute and can seem overwhelming. The rising pollution in New Delhi, for example, continues to result in disruptions to commerce and daily activities, such as school closings and flight cancellations, as well as a burgeoning public health crisis.
But Dr. Narain says that the situation is improving. Government policies have inspired a significant organic food movement, for example. And environmental awareness is significantly heightened. “We have a long-term vision,” she said, “But our immediate task is to stay focused on solutions.” She added, “For too long we have been obsessed with defining the problem; now we need to look at solutions.”
Learn more: www.cseindia.org